A CDN can be the critical edge a business needs to perform better, cut costs, and retain more customers. Whether you want to become a game-changer in your industry’s digital space or just get your YouTube video to play without buffering, CDNs can be part of the answer to addressing slow page load times and improving website performance.
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What is a CDN?
CDNs are systems of servers dispersed geographically across a region. These servers will store a website’s content — texts, images, and pages, for example — for later retrieval, with each server having a copy of that content.
When an end-user goes to load a website or platform, they will be connected to the CDN closest to them to retrieve the content data. Using a CDN allows for websites and their content to load faster and download quicker. In short, CDNs improve the quality of your website for the end-user by distributing the workload to the server closest to them.
A good alternative to a CDN is a caching plugin like WP Rocket (they can also be used together). We installed WP Rocket on one of our high-volume websites and our GT Metrix page speed score immediately jumped from an E to an A.
Before WP Rocket
After WP Rocket
CDNs are often confused with cloud services like iCloud or Google Drive, but there is a distinction. In a cloud system, all the data is stored in a single data center, with the cloud’s software service being remotely available to end-users. In CDNs, the information is dispersed to multiple data centers across regions. To use a food analogy, cloud computing is like breaking off a piece of a big pie to give to a user, while a CDN is like making a smaller copy of the pie for the user to access. There’s overlap in function, but they aren’t quite the same.
CDNs are strategically placed around a region according to volume expectations, so areas near cities and coasts often have the highest concentration of servers. However this method also benefits rural areas, as they no longer have to rely on connecting to an origin server that may be in a distant data center; if there’s a server location closer to them, that’s what they connect to.
Advantages of Content Delivery Network
Here’s the breakdown of all the ways a CDN can benefit your business’ website.
The most immediate improvement to a website is the speed at which it operates. When a CDN distributes your website’s data across its servers, what it is doing is effectively creating a local version of your content for end-users to access. So instead of your website’s origin server bearing the burden of all traffic and requests, the local server handles it.
This allows for a drastic decrease in the server’s latency, and ultimately faster speeds on the site. Everything on your site is simultaneously sped up as a result; images, styles, scripts, plugins, buttons, and videos all benefit from utilizing a CDN’s local server.
Usability is one of the top contributors to user experience, and speed is a massive factor in that category. CDNs will make your website run faster and lead to a higher chance of positive customer experience and reviews.
When you implement a CDN, your origin server is given an effective bodyguard against malicious software or DDoS attacks.
Because the CDN server acts as the first point of entry for the user, it similarly acts as the point of entry for malware. The CDN itself has a firewall that will be the first line of defense in such a situation, leaving your origin server protected.
Many CDNs offer a dashboard service that allows for the website owner to manage each and every tool the program offers right from your desktop.
Popular statistics found in typical CDNs include bandwidth usage, cache, and non-cache hits percent, and content zone breakdowns. Information such as this is standard practice, and the vast improvements we saw are similarly common.
Detailed reports can be filed and sent to website owners so you can visualize the statistics and share them with partners, shareholders, or lenders. These reports can describe what kind of interaction your site received by the hour and other important user activity metrics.
These reports can often serve to bring insights into some areas of your website that services like Google Analytics might not cover.
Every industry has a busy season, and nobody likes downtime. High traffic can cause issues for any website, and depending on the company, a website may be everything to a business. CDNs offer a way beyond crossing your fingers and hoping to ensure content is live on your site through even the toughest traffic spikes.
With CDNs, traffic can be distributed and balanced across networks and by region so your origin server doesn’t get overloaded with requests. This weight distribution helps lower stress for both you and your customer, as well as ensure increased protection of sensitive customer data like banking or social security information.
CDNs can cut costs for businesses of all sizes.
Smaller businesses with low or moderate levels of traffic can find CDNs with shared hosting options. This is usually the cheapest method of implementing a CDN, and they can manage to store hundreds or thousands of accounts on localized servers.
Businesses with international reach are some of the main beneficiaries of CDNs. Foreign web hosting, security, and support systems can be extremely costly, but CDNs allow for stronger connections across massive distances. If your business is involved overseas, CDNs are one of the most cost-effective ways to retain a reputation of high digital service regardless of borders.
CDNs tangentially manage to make companies money as well as save it. A 2017 study found that retail companies that performed the strongest on last year’s Black Friday were those with site load times at or under 2.4 percent, with the top 10 having a 1.8 second average load time.
Consumers will choose a different seller if your website’s load times are less than stellar. By implementing a CDN, you’re taking a direct step toward ensuring potential customers stay on your page and trust the authority of your product.
Disadvantages Of A Content Delivery Network
A CDN can be a great boost for a business, but it comes with certain drawbacks. Make sure you're informed and confident in which option best suits your website's needs.
The truth is the net benefit of a CDN is largely related to your business' size, structure, and capabilities. While small businesses can absolutely save themselves money by using CDNs that offer shared hosting, there is going to be an initial cost, and in many cases the CDN will be another bill to worry about.
As with any business addition, it's up to every owner to consult amongst themselves and determine whether the cost of the CDN is worth the investment. If you're a business that counts on web traffic for a good chunk of your sales, then a CDN might be a good investment. But it's important to budget wisely and budget specifically.
Throwing money and features at your website will not automatically fix it. The CDN can be worth the cost if you have the tools in place to run a successful online business — SEO content strategy, PPC campaigns, a consistent social media presence — but if you aren't investing in those areas, you might not be starting at the right place.
When using a CDN, businesses must be conscious of what remote locations will be hosting their data, and if their content is affected by it. If you have an international business, you need to know which countries restrict the IP addresses of which CDN providers.
This largely isn't an issue for small businesses, but for companies with a global reach, or those who want a global reach down the road, it's something worth considering.
Dynamic Content Security
While CDNs do provide another layer of security for DDoS attacks, they also open a doorway to more specific kinds of attacks.
CDNs are especially good at hosting static content. However, most dynamic content needs to be stored on the origin server, primarily because the local servers the CDNs are using don't have the storage capacity for files types of that size from so many websites. So when a user goes on your website and requests dynamic content, the origin server is contacted.
Viruses and attackers can take advantage of this by organizing their attacks to be used through this dynamic content hand-off process. For many businesses, their origin servers don't have the capacity or the infrastructure necessary to defend against this. Many CDNs are trying to find ways to defend against this, namely with limits on how much dynamic content requests a site accepts over a specific time frame. However, this method can result in legitimate users being denied access to dynamic content during high traffic times, so it is not a perfect solution.
Different CDNs have different levels of this issue. The core of it is this: when you have your data hosted on a lot of local servers, it becomes harder to make sweeping troubleshooting changes to your site.
Say there is a technical issue with your CDN's local server in New England, but your business is in Georgia. If the CDN makes a silent change to your data, such as an update or an automatic edit, it can affect — and thus cause problems with — the local data files while not impacting the rest of the data on other servers.
Without a CDN, you would know that your site is having issues because you see it on your end. But with some CDNs, recognizing server errors can be slightly delayed due to the reporting and feedback system, meaning your site has an issue in one part of the country that it doesn't have in the others.
These issues may be resolved by your CDN's technical team without you realizing, but they also might go unnoticed. It all depends on which network you choose to go with, so be sure to do research on the response times and feedback options provided by any potential CDNs you are interested in.
Is a CDN worth it?
CDNs, like anything else you use on your website, are a tool to drive conversions and sales. They can be critically beneficial, or just another line on your expense report. The difference is in your business — your size, your product, your model, and most importantly, how devoted you are to digital commerce.
So, should you use a content delivery network? And is a CDN worth it?
If you're dedicated to making your digital storefront the best experience possible for customers, then yes.
But not all businesses need a CDN, and that's completely fine. Some companies can best benefit from using a cheaper CDN with less hosting options and fewer server locations, while others might desire the lessened server burden and DDoS defenses.
We can't sit here and tell you what your business needs because we don't know anything about your business. CDNs aren't a one-size-fits-all solution. They're a specialized opportunity for improving your end-user's digital customer experience. Their power and success are reliant on you.
Whatever your decision is, always be sure you understand the total scope of possible outcomes before busting out the credit card.
If you'd like some help discerning whether your business should invest in a CDN, reach out to us today. We'd love to talk about what it will take to take your business' digital presence to the next level.